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Some Words to Start on
on November 14, 2007
The Words We Live By is a readily accessible, quick reference analysis of the Constitution of the United States of America. It makes use of a functional format (that resembles a text book) as well as interesting little anecdotes that restore a portion of the textual and historical romance that you naturally lose in any abridgment. It presents the analytical and background material in a manner that easily correlates to the corresponding text within the Constitution. Taking a "one bite at a time" type of approach, The Words We Live By briefly examines our Constitution in multiple contexts--a refreshing little jaunt, through a critical piece of our heritage.
Linda Monk employs an informative method in her writing; it kind of resembles a letter that you'd write home, describing your new surroundings. She tells things, quite technically, "how they are," and then proceeds to give some necessary background. In her own words, "the Constitution is also the product of an ongoing conversation among Americans about the meaning of freedom in their daily lives."(Monk 9) Frequently she goes beyond glossary or the bare minimum historical information to reveal glimpses of the fascinating complexity of it all. I didn't always feel edified by the sidebar comments made, but they were varied and presented a broad spectrum of things one wouldn't normally have considered. I didn't find this book to be constructed to lead the reader to any one opinion. While personally I don't care too much for her type of voice, she did employ her method very well, and it effectively brought out appealing details of the study of our history.
The book begins by establishing some common ground with a general introduction, as does each section. The chapters begin with the section of the Constitution that is to be analyzed. Linda Monk then breaks that section down into a few lines of the text which she explicates in a few paragraphs. It's easy to find reference for difficult or uncommon terms, as they are set aside with a brief explanation in the margins, near to where they are discussed in the main body of the text. The pictures and comics, on most of the pages, make it easy to interpret or find specific points in the ongoing discussion. Strewn throughout the chapters are these lovely, little, purple boxes that contain examples, outside opinions, or related historical/current events. This leads us to the second, main characteristic of the book
One strength to Monk's analysis is the variety in connections it makes between the constitutional text and our history and current events. The comparisons made tend to be objective, for the most part, as well they should be. She doesn't come out and say, "Here's an example of the elastic clause, and by the way, this is what the answer is by the Constitution!" Rather, she presents specific examples and then connects the reader with what parts of the constitution they pertain to. A complaint I had of this, was that I felt certain issues presented were connected to more sections of the Constitution than were mentioned. Considering the scope of this work, though, Monk's analysis meets reasonable expectations. Even though I didn't find that all of the tidbits presented by Monk were necessarily helpful or appropriate to the current discussion, they did serve their purpose well. Without such tangents, an analytical breakdown of this legal document would have not been as engaging, to say the least. I found this aspect to be the book's greatest strength as well as weakness.
Monk's conversational manner brings out the richness of our heritage in an interesting way. Her discussion holds a bit of a story telling air to it but puts an atypical tilt on things. While not quite as dramatic as a pure historical narrative would have been, it sheds some additional light on our views as a culture. It follows a form comparative to a philosophical narrative; that is, it tells the story of the message or idea that defines America rather than looking over a complete, chronological sequence of events. This development leads us to ponder what the motivation is exactly for our political and ethical convictions. The text evokes an honest question: "Did we do the right things in the past?" and based on the answer to that, "What parts of our history and Constitution can we look to as `words to live by?'" There seems to be a popular trend in America to dig up the dirt in our past. I found Monk's questions to be quite refreshing compared to the historical mud-slinging I've seen so often. I didn't find her sheltering any skeletons in our closet, and her questions/observations posed were respectful and fair.
A theme throughout the book is how our Constitution has changed--hopefully towards liberty and justice. In addition to the original constitution, all of the amendments are annotated. In most cases a brief history is given that explains the context pertinent to that given amendment. Then, (in some cases more than others) Monk attempts to address some of the arguments for and against that amendment. Numerous Supreme Court rulings are used which partially illustrate the aftermath of the amendments. This is also done within the analysis of the main body of the Constitution, though, I am a little disappointed that very little of the general aftermath is discussed. The analysis on the amendments section seemed, to me, to be more interpretive than critical or informative. Very little time is spent, in most cases, on how a specific amendment changed the political scene. In all fairness to the author, though, it would be difficult to make any general statement like that without expressing bias.
The book has very little in the way of a formal conclusion; it lasts less than one page. Most of that one page is quotations from other authors. It shouldn't come as a surprise to the reader that Linda Monk doesn't pass any final judgment. She makes two statements in summary of what she tried to do with her book. First, an inquiry about the future: "What amendments might come next in the U. S. Constitution?" What will the future hold, and how much of that will rely on us. Stemming off this thought she closes, leaving us with the charge "To decide for ourselves what freedom is. That is the greatest gift that our Constitution gives us--a way to decide, along with our fellow citizens, what words we will live by." (Monk 263) That seems to summarize The Words We Live By in my mind. While I did want to see more in the way of history and general, macro analysis, I can't deny that this book served its purpose as stated from these sentences. I would recommend this book to anyone approaching voting age or who feels that they don't have an interest in this nation. Most people who read this book will come away with an increased sense of their responsibility and power to make a difference. It will increase one's desire to be aware and be actively engaged in the future formation of our law.